by Michael Vernetti
Saint Mary’s worst game against an inferior team last season came exactly a year before Tuesday night’s 93-61 romp over Bethune-Cookman. It was a slogging, 70-54 triumph over Sacramento State on a Monday following the previous Saturday’s exhilarating victory over the Cal Bears in Berkeley.
This year’s post-Cal event was on a Tuesday, but it, too, came after a rousing win over the Bears. It, too, featured a Saint Mary’s team that seemed unenthusiastic about playing a lesser opponent. And, just like last year, the Gaels were saved by a stellar effort in the paint, as Jordan Hunter did his best Jock Landale impression with a career-high 24 points, 12 rebounds in a tidy 28 minutes of play.
To be fair, Landale went for 37 points and 18 rebounds against Sac State, but the scenario was similar: the Gael offense was creaky, and the only successful option was to toss the ball into the paint to the big man. One game does not a season make, but Gael fans who have watched Hunter closely this year hoping to see evidence that he has stepped up to his necessary role as a team leader were encouraged by his performance against Bethune-Cookman.
Hunter scored in a number of ways — jump hook, left-handed hook and straight-on jump shot — and he looked comfortable doing it. Perhaps more importantly, he was called for only three fouls, which matched his number of blocked shots. Fans can see Hunter consciously holding back on risky reaches and block attempts, indicating he has finally learned that discretion is the better part of valor in college hoops.
I heard one fan complain, “Too easy, Hunter,” after a B-C player scored on a reverse lay-up in the paint, but I was glad to see Hunter give up a basket instead of risking a foul call. He needs to stay on the floor for major minutes to give Saint Mary’s offense and defense in the post, and he seems to have figured that out. In that way, his performance was even more satisfying than Landale’s domination over Sac State.
One reason for the Gaels’ lethargic start against B-C was the ability of its guards to hound Saint Mary’s guards Jordan Ford and Tommy Kuhse. They didn’t turn over the Gaels excessively — only three TOs on the guards and seven overall — but they kept Ford and Kuhse from getting where they wanted on the floor and making passes to open teammates. They held the Gaels to only 36 points in the first half, including a weak 22% on three-point attempts (2-9).
Unfortunately for B-C, the game consists of two halves, and the Gaels responded to a paltry 36-31 halftime lead with a 57-point second half that featured 10-25 made three-pointers. They also stepped up their defense, holding B-C to 31% shooting in the half and 39% overall. Gael Coach Randy Bennett wants his team to hold opponents to under 40% shooting, and his players succeeded against B-C.
If Hunter’s game was efficient — eight of 10 shooting — Ford’s was even more so. Ford also shot 8-10 from the floor, including 3-5 three-pointers, on his way to 23 points scored, but he did it in only 27 minutes of play, which is very low for a Saint Mary’s lead guard. Nothing was said officially — not even ever-alert Gael play-by-play man Alex Jensen noticed it — but I could have sworn Ford was nursing some minor ailment.
He didn’t participate in either pre-game or between-halves warm-ups, and had to drag himself to the bench a couple of times. Kuhse also took over most ball-handling chores, allowing Ford to find open spots in the B-C defense, which he did effectively. Maybe it was a cold or touch of the flu, but the Gaels seemed to be trying to give Ford a little break.
I told myself that Bennett would bench Ford when the Gaels went up by 20, and that’s exactly what happened with about nine minutes let in the game. In came freshman Aussie Alex Mudronja, with his best showcase opportunity in the young season. Unfortunately, he bombed.
Mudronja has an impressive wing span, and his main tactic to hold off opposing guards is to dribble the ball behind him, using his lead hand to ward off steals. Unfortunately, that also exposes his dribble hand to opportunistic defenders, and the B-C players were very opportunistic. They swatted away Mudronja’s dribble once and seemed to confound him almost every time he brought the ball up court.
This is probably an adjustment Mudronja will make as he logs more minutes, but he seems to be playing too slowly for D1 competition. It raises a question whether he is best suited to the point or off-guard, and underlines why Bennett has settled into a guard rotation featuring Ford and Kuhse.
Similar to Hunter’s development, Kuhse seems to be growing into his role as a starter alongside Ford. He had his first double-digit scoring effort against B-C, totaling 11 points on 4-9 shooting, and dished out six assists against zero turnovers for the second game in a row. Could we be witnessing another Mickey McConnell-like ascension to a starring role for Kuhse?
McConnell played under the shadow of Patty Mills in his first year-and-a-half as a Gael, stepping into the starting lineup when Mills went down with a broken wrist midway through his senior season. McConnell filled in successfully for Mills until Mills returned to the lineup, then became a full-fledged star in his junior and senior seasons.
Kuhse is also just a redshirt sophomore, and played a minor role with the Gaels until the injury to Kristers Zoriks and Bennett’s decision that Tanner Krebs was not an adequate off-guard elevated him to the starting lineup. He works comfortably with Ford, and the pair gives Saint Mary’s the luxury of having two guards with a point guard mentality in the game at the same time.
Kuhse’s development is just one thread in a season where player development will be the a major factor. With Hunter shining one game, Malik Fitts, Dan Fotu, Matthias Tass or Krebs shining in others, the Gaels are a work in progress. They take another step Friday afternoon against New Mexico in the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Jordan Hunter, shown above in a Blue-White scrimmage in 2016, had a break-out effort against Bethune-Cookman, with a double-double of 24 points and 12 rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.